Asheville – Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer reported she had received a request to remove “Item I: Budget Amendment to Establish a Budget for the Asheville Police Department’s State and Federal Forfeiture Funds Already Received by the City” from the consent agenda for a separate vote. The discussion was not to be about the budget amendment per se; rather, it was an opportunity for the candidates to express publicly their disdain for a controversial federal policy over which the council has no jurisdiction.
Not at stake was the “already received” cash of $419,214.47, which council had to formally go through motions to place in the municipal budget. The staff report said the funds originated from state and federal seizures going as far back as 2019. The budget ordinance amendment described the “investments” recommended by the police department for these funds as “Supplies—Other (P0911)” and “Supplies—Other (P0912).” The staff report described them as “a new DNA analyzer system, replacing an end-of-life bomb robot, and advanced forensic training for four forensic technicians.”
Borrowing Orwellian sound bites from a document published by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the staff report briefly describes the “Equitable Sharing Program.” It laughably conjures images of a band of marauding pirates getting bureaucratic about how they’re going to split the booty.
Since it is the federal government’s job to grow the federal government, or so it seems, the document stipulates that the “shared funds” must be used to expand police department resources.
They cannot be used to displace previously-allocated police resources for use in a municipality’s general fund. The document provides a long list of allowable uses. Among these are compensation for informants; the purchase of evidence; recruitment and advertising; language translation and interpretation; speaker fees; curriculum development; “leasing, operating, and furnishing an offsite undercover narcotics facility;” refurnishing facilities; expanding capital projects, provided approval is procured from the appropriate division of the DOJ; subject matter experts; grant writers; travel and transportation; awards and memorials that don’t “create the appearance of extravagance;” awareness programs; matching funds; and no more than $25,000 in annual support for community organizations. Funds may also be used for more practical expenses such as police equipment and gear.
Illegal activities, “campaign paraphernalia, gym memberships, bar, union, or other individual dues;” food or beverages, with exceptions; “tickets to social events, hospitality suites at conferences, or meals or travel in excess of the per diem;” petty cash or gift cards; legal expenses; and “state and local undercover money laundering operations” are all prohibited uses.
Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith said the matter had been thoroughly vetted by the council’s Public Safety Committee. Acknowledging the diversity of opinions people hold on the subject of “equitable sharing,” a.k.a. asset forfeiture, Smith found the practice “compromising to me, because a lot of times the money is allotted and spent before an arrest or conviction is made.”
Smith continued, stating that the council does not have the authority to tell the police department how to spend the funds or dictate policy for the police department. Even so, she said, “I do believe that there should be a community vision around spending.” She elaborated, stating it was the community’s opinion that the most important problem the police could help solve was gun violence. The three expenditures suggested, she said, would “help on the reactive side,” but the community was demanding “more preventive measures.”
Manheimer said she had watched the Public Safety Committee meeting remotely and had run some of her questions by City Attorney Brad Branham. She asked him to confirm that the $419,214.47 was coming from cases that had reached final adjudication. She said the city’s legal team, given the short notice, had been able to confirm that resources could be put into the shared equity program stash “only after a judge orders that they can be.” That, she said, indicated at least that “there has been some determination” at the judicial level.
Branham contributed that in the system the Department of Justice uses for equitable sharing, forfeiture and criminal prosecution proceed separately. The manual published by the DOJ stipulates that forfeiture should only occur after criminal action so as to avoid concerns like those the council was expressing. This allows potential shared equity to be retained in police custody as evidence. Once a crime is prosecuted, a judicial order would be needed for the forfeiture.
Manheimer reviewed the stipulations for use, and Smith said the Public Safety Committee had considered allotting portions of the proceeds to community programs. Ideas for youth programs and violence interruption initiatives were tossed about. It was decided the $25,000 cap would make any contribution a drop in the bucket, but law enforcement programs could support “the community wish list,” primarily for anti-gun violence programming.
Reading prepared remarks, Councilwoman Kim Roney said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had cautioned against “policing for profit.” By way of contrast, in order to avoid perverse incentives and conflicts of interest, assets seized by local law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are statutorily required to benefit public schools. Other complaints were that asset forfeiture placed the burden on the accused to challenge the system before he was found guilty and, though any connection other than the “failed War on Drugs” was not articulated, she brought up the problems the APD had with missing evidence “during Ron Moore’s tenure [as district attorney].”
On the subject of equitable sharing, Roney said it would be equitable to return the forfeitures to the neighborhoods, not the individuals, from which they were “extracted.” Roney said she would like to see the funds support officer training, like crisis de-escalation, youth mentorship, and violence interruption programs. She requested that the matter be remanded to the Public Safety Committee to ascertain more about the demographics most impacted by the seizures.
After an uncomfortable silence, Councilwoman Gwen Wisler moved to postpone consideration so Roney’s request could be satisfied. Roney seconded, but Smith, recalling committee discussions, said, “We pushed that point.” We exhausted that conversation. I believe it’s time for a vote. ” Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore concurred, and Manheimer said the outstanding concerns pertained to the federal program over which the council had no control. She withdrew her motion, and Councilwoman Sage Turner made a motion to approve, which Wisler seconded. The vote was 5-2, with Smith and Roney opposed.